Comparing Past & Present Grades

As a result of the annual debate on standards I have been considering how best to compare the grades of current 16 year olds and those achieved by us oldies three decades ago.

When O-levels were introduce in the 1950s they were graded but the important point was whether you passed or failed. Another exam, the Certificate of Secondary Education (CSE) was introduced later. A grade 1 in this exam was considered equivalent to an O level pass, Grade 4 represented the ability of the average 16 year old. Grades 2 & 3 were thus above average but not of O level standard. Grade 5 was below average but still considered worthy of recording. Anything below 5 was Unclassified. In 1975 the O-level grading system was changed. The old “pass” grades were replaced with A, B & C. Two further grades, D & E, which wre lower than the old pass but still represented above average ability for a 16 year old, now appeared on certificates. A few years later, the two exams were phased out and replaced with the General Certificate of Secondary Education.

Currently, approximately 60% of 16 year olds attain 5 or more A*-C passes, so C now represents an average achievement. 20 – 25% entered in a subject achieve A or A* so I think it reasonable to consider this the equivalent of the old pass grades. A student obtaining A* today may well have achieved an A in the past.

To get onto the old A-level you needed an O-level pass. These days, you have to do AS first. Obviously this is of lower standard than the A2 (as the exam taken at 18 is now known) but you still need a B at GCSE to gain a place on an AS course si it seems reasonable to me that B is clearly above average but of a lower standard than the old O-level pass.

A major difference now is that there are four “below average” grades (D, E, F & G) whereas in the past there was only one (the CSE grade 5). Assuning the CSE grades each covered roughly the same range I consider the modern D & E at best to be equivalent achievements to the old CSE grade 5.

In summary, then:-

GCSE grade     O-Level grade         CSE grade   

      A*                            A

      A                             B/C                      1

      B                             D/E                      2/3

      C                             U                            4 

      D/E                          U                            5

      F/G                          U                            U


My own achievement at age 16 was six O-levels (5 As and a B) plus 3 CSEs (2 2s and a 4). So using the above reasoning means I obtained the equivalent of 5 A*s, 1 A, 2 Bs and a C.

Which means the kids who obtained 8 A*s are still cleverer than me. Oh well…

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6 Responses to “Comparing Past & Present Grades”

  1. pyjamasinbananas Says:

    I think you’re a little unfair on current educational standards with your assumption that education at CSE level was as good as current GCSE education. There are pretty good reasons to believe (including existing disparities from grammar and ‘comprehensive’ schools) that secondary modern education was inferior to current standards.

    (Oh yeah, interesting fact my mother pointed out to me, one of the exam boards awarded alternate letters, A, C, and E, instead of A, B, and C!)

  2. kelvinthroop Says:

    Secondary Modern schools were seriously underfunded. However many comprehensives offered both O-level and CSE. Often the same teacher taught both. Is it likely that CSE pupils in this situation would receive an inferior education?

  3. pyjamasinbananas Says:

    Yes, if they were taught separately because the same poverty of ambition that afflicted secondary moderns could extend to those considered not good enough for O Levels.

    Until the 70s less than 20% of children were educated in comprehensives so they would have had minimal impact on CSE grades until then I would have thought.

  4. Tony Inns Says:

    well i got a cse greade 2 in englesh and it aint held bac my cureer at all…….. lol.
    Seriously however you view it and whatever you opinion, it all seemed so much better back then didn’t it?? with proper subjects and strict exams and teachers you would not dare answer back…. am i just getting old or is something missing these days?
    I get the feeling GCSE’s were made up just to pump up the grades a notch, i strived to be in an o level class and the few i did end up in i was very proud to be there, my CSE 2 in english would equate to a ‘B’ in GCSE speak and it sounds a lot better than it actually was, in reality i scraped through a second grade exam with simplified questions and my grade reflected that fact, in GCSE grades it appears i almost aced it…….
    JUst a thought.

  5. Tig AkaTricia Brown Says:

    One problem in comparing grades over time is the lack of clarity about when they stopped fitting exam results to a ‘normal curve’. They were certainly using this method in the 1960s, but I don’t know when they stopped.
    The decision to fit marks to an expected proportion in each grade particularly restricted the top grades.

  6. Tony Nicholas Gomes (@tonygms2) Says:

    I got A in bangla. Cs in English and 2Ds in Bio and Math and E in Chemistry… in my olevels what would me good for me to study in my olevels?

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